Sunday, October 21, 2012

'What is it to sleep hungry?'

What is it to sleep hungry?

This was a question Harsh Mandar asked an audience of university-educated, middle-class Indian youngsters. Since no answers were forthcoming, he went on to talk of his experiences with some of the poorest communities in the country.

Folks belonging to the Musahar ('Rat-eater') community in Eastern India, learnt the answer to this question quite early in life. During the lean seasons, when even rats are hard to come by, mother's apply a herb to their baby's thumb fingers which they suckle to sleep. Older children are taught more advanced survival skills -  picking edible food-grains and nuts from animal feces, raiding burrows for remnants of food and chewing on 'fake foods'.

The point being driven home was that it is unconscionable for citizens to go hungry in a country that is sitting on huge "buffer-stocks" of nearly 80 million tonnes of food grains. According to Dreze and Khera, never in history has so much under-nutrition co-existed with so much hoarding of food.

This simple assertion - or fact - forms the basis for the Food Security Bill currently being considered by the Parliament.

Critics of this Bill insist that it would become another law which just cannot be implemented. Food, along with Fuel and Fertilizer forms the 'subsidy triad' which is already a burden on our finances. Even though volume of food grains needed to implement food security schemes is just 8 million tonnes more than the 55 million tonnes being channeled down our leaky Public Distribution System,not everyone is sure whether the food will actually reach the intended beneficiaries living in remote rural areas.

One also wonders which is the greater evil -- feeding the rent-seekers already entrenched in the system, or creating a another form of 'state dependency'.



* Sharma, Vijay Paul (2012): FOOD SUBSIDY IN INDIA: TRENDS, CAUSES AND POLICY REFORM OPTIONS, IIMA Working Papers, Aug2012, url -
- trends in post-reform period 1991-92 to 2012-13
- Subsidy was Rs.72,283 Cr (2011-12) - 5% of Agricultural GDP -- it was just Rs.2,850 Cr in 1991-92...increased 25X in 21 years!
- bottom decile class of consumers (based on per monthly per capita consumer expenditure) spends about 65 per cent of total expenditure on food items in rural areas and about 62 per cent in urban areas.
- Minimum Support Price (MSP) for rice and wheat doubled between 2005-2012

* Patnaik, Banikinkar (2012): FOOD SECURITY BILL LIKELY IN NEXT SESSION, SAYS THOMAS, The Financial Express, 29Sep12, url -
- The proposed Bill aims to provide legal entitlement for subsidised grain to around 63.5% of the country’s population. Provisional estimates suggest the government needs as much as 63 million tonnes (mt) of grain to implement the Bill, nearly 8 mt higher than the current requirements. However, the Bill, once enacted, may drive up the government’s annual food subsidy bill to R1,19,000 crore, compared with R72,823 crore in 2011-12. (FT)

* Dreze, Jean and Ritika Khera (2012): A BILL THAT ASKS TOO MUCH OF THE POOR, The Hindu, 5Sep12, url -
- procurement has crossed 70 million tonnes per year, distribution is not keeping up, and excess stocks are growing. Never in history has so much undernutrition co-existed with so much hoarding of food. The government is desperately trying to export the surplus stocks, or simply allowing them to pile up unprotected. Reviving and revamping the Food Security Bill sounds like a better idea.

* Mander, Harsh (2012): Book Review - Big Talk at High Tide, Outlook, 16 July 2012, url -
* Mander, Harsh (2012): Dissent is a Virtue Too, The Hindu, 2 June 2012, url -
*Mander, Harsh (2012): Barefood - Their Discovery of India, The Hindu, 7 April 2012, url -
*Mander, Harsh (2008): Poverty the Eye Cannot See, Himal, October 2008, url -
. Poverty and its handmaiden, inequality, he says, “are everywhere for all those with eyes to see”, yet academics and policymakers “have an almost existential need to know how much of ‘it’ there is, and who ‘they’ are.” In fact, they are in “every landlord’s house, in each village, every five-star hotel is surrounded by them, every posh colony has its antithesis outside its gate, where the other half strives to survive … they greet you again on the pavements after a late night … you have a brush with them at traffic lights.”

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